An outsider’s view of the DFL Minneapolis mayoral convention


Eh! Stop all your whining, wouldcha?

I’ve only been living in Minnesota for 15 years or so. I freely admit that when it comes to Minnesota politics, I’m an outsider and I have a lot to learn. But I’m interested and I’ve been learning and I have a few comments to make about what happened yesterday.

Yesterday, a majority of the citizens of Minneapolis were represented by something close to 1,400 delegates at the DFL (that’s what we call the Democratic Party in these parts) convention at which several candidates were considered for endorsement for the general election for mayor. Some say this endorsement has little meaning; the Mayoral election is non-partisan. But it is done anyway, and probably for good reason.

As is the case with many American cities, the mayor is usually a Democrat, so what the Democratic Party (DFL) does in the re-election messing around matters a lot. Having said that, there is no reason to regard a democratic party convention as special; if Republicans had more purchase in the local electorate, their convention would also be relevant, and it isn’t really the DFL’s fault that the real work of choosing a mayor falls to whatever political machine they’ve cooked up. Or maybe it does matter, maybe the DFL needs to regard their mayoral convention as special. Or not. Whatever. I can’t decide.

I moved to the twin cities two mayors ago, and lived outside of Minneapolis for a full three years before moving into the city, and just about that time the current mayor was elected, and the citizens of Minneapolis happily re-elected him again and again until he decided he’d had enough and said he wouldn’t run again.

The previous mayor was controversial, I’m told, but I could not explain or support that idea since I was not involved in local politics at the time. I did notice that the city had some racial issues and that generally women have a harder time getting elected, and she was a black female, so I wondered if the real issues were racism and/or sexism. People don’t like to openly talk about that kind of thing in these parts, but I’m from New York so I can’t stop myself. But I quickly add that I also heard from people I respected some things that made me wonder what that mayor was doing a few times, so maybe there were other reasons to unelect. Whatever. The point I want to make here is simply that I think we have some issues in Minnesota with respect to both a person’s sex and a person’s skin color, and at a broad level, gender orientation as well. Having said that, Minneapolis is a very progressive city. Having said THAT, I think the good citizens of Minneapolis sometimes hide some this-or-thatism behind their progressiveness.

Anyway, that is part of the background for the convention. For the last several months, various City of Minneapolis political folks, mostly current or former elected city officials, have been throwing their respective hats in the ring for the office of Mayor. I’m not going to say who I supported or did not support other than to say this: A couple of the people who wanted to run for Mayor are people I know and like, and a couple of other people are individuals I don’t know about but they seemed fine. Since I live a full three municipalities away from Minneapolis these days, I didn’t feel responsible to make a choice, and I don’t think it is my place (though of course it is my right, if I want) to express an opinion on this. In any event, it would be an uniformed opinion, so I’m not interested in indicating support for a given candidate. But I do want to talk about the process and a few other details.

The DFL has an arcane, exclusionary, and seemingly useless system of party politics.

Or, the DFL has an effective, inclusive highly democratic (as in “democracy”) system of party politics.

Hard to decide. When I first moved to the City, I got somewhat involved in local politics, but not at the procedural level. I tended to be out of town during much of the electoral process each year. But then, after moving out of the city, I got involved in the process at the congressional district level. At first I liked the “caucus” system because it really is true that anybody (well, any citizen) can show up in their district and become a delegate (or help determine who is a delegate) and make a huge contribution to the process of putting forward candidates at the party level. There are other things one can do as well, including supporting (or working against) what would ultimately become party positions. The same community that carries out these party activities also participates in the campaigns of those who ultimately run for office.

Along the way I heard criticisms of the process. I was told that the caucus and convention system was too exclusionary and involved too much “inside” politics. People suggested that using the primary (which also exists as part of the process) as a mechanism was more democratic. But there is an opposite argument to make as well. A wealthy candidate can win in a primary by buying lots of ads, and a nobody like you or me (I assume, dear reader, that you are a nobody like me) can get into office via the highly inclusionary caucus system.

Initially I came down on the side of the caucus and convention system being better, but over time I realized that the complaints about its exclusionary and ineffective nature were also true. I’ve come to think that the caucus and convention system is a potentially good system that has gotten broken and needs to be fixed, and together with the primary system this whole thing can work if we do it right.

I’m not going to tell you how to fix the caucus system (because I don’t really know) but I will make a few related observations

At caucuses, and at yesterday’s convention, the party insiders send out strong signals of two things: 1) The party insider activities are more important than the job of putting forward candidates and 2) If you don’t get interested in the party insider activities we will punish you by boring you to death in the hopes that you go away and don’t come back.

(Dear party insider. You may not think you are putting out these signals, but you are. Ask anybody who is not an insider.)

I think all the citizens who got involved with the process for the first time this year, and for whom the party convention was one of the first things that they did (as delegates), who had to sit through six hours of stuff other than voting on candidates, would agree. Next time around, many are thinking, either get involved in the party stuff, whatever the heck that actually is, or just let someone else do it.

Six hours of mucking around before voting is a long time, but the various caucuses I’ve been to do the same thing at a somewhat less obnoxious level. Party business happens at the beginning, and has no real time limit, and you do it until you are done, then the voting happens and that DOES have a time limit (there are several different real and pragmatic time limits that kick in, including the fact that you will all get kicked out of the VFW hall at a certain time because BINGO. Etc.)

So, the part of the process that brings people in is the part of the process that the insiders disrespect, or don’t care about, it would seem.

Last night’s convention ended with no endorsement. The way it worked was like this:

Candidates A, B and C were the only one left standing right from hear the beginning. Candidates B and C shared a base, to the exclusion of A. So, one of them, let’s just say “C,” left the race and threw support to B, knowing (maybe) that A could not have a super majority (needed to get an endorsement) so C was not really out of the race. Then, candidates A and B went head to head and although A had a majority, A did not have a super majority. At this point, B left the room, not the race, so there was no longer a quorum.

In other words, A was winning all along, but not by enough, so B and C ended the process. Now all three may well continue in the race and the voters will decide.

A lot of people complained about that, but actually, nobody did anything wrong. The whole purpose of a super majority is to really really mean it when you endorse a candidate. If a convention can’t get a super majority, then that means that the party simply did not have a super-candidate that was also clearly head and shoulders above the others, and we move on to the next step. No candidate is obliged, where there is no clear super majority, to suddenly support the person you like and push them over the edge.

If a candidate is clearly nowhere near getting a super majority and the voters have spoken at least once, that candidate, if their numbers are low, should back out right away and let the process start up again. That seems to have happened in this case. But if nobody has a super majority and there are two or three candidates hanging around there in the “lots of people support this person” level, then all valid parliamentary moves are allowable. All of them from quorum calls to leaving the convention. You can’t say “Oh, my candidate got screwed when that person over there did this one thing they are allowed to do, therefore I declare this thing each candidate is allowed to do to be WRONG AND IMMORAL.

The principle is called estopple. A lawyer will tell you that estopple means, roughly, you engaged in this thing, perhaps a system with rules, for a long time knowingly and willingly and your engagement implies your acceptance of the rules, so follow the rules. I like to think of estopple as meaning “eh… stop all your whining, will ya?” Nobody at the convention stuffed any ballot boxes or intimidated any delegates. Everybody followed the rules. Some of the rules may be strange, but really they aren’t; they just seem strange if you are not used to this sort of thing.

I have two other small points to make.

First, I have a rule you should follow. Obviously you are free to ignore this rule because, well, you can totally ignore anything and everything I say because I am not the boss of you. But it is a good rule. The rule is, if you play, play nice. I am not the enforcer of this rule, but the people of Minnesota are. I don’t agree with the people of Minnesota on this. I don’t think, for example, that it was a good idea to send Norm Coleman to the Senate just because people were offended by what happened at a memorial service. In other words, the Wellstone Family and supporters, and other loyal Dems, did things at Wellstones’ memorial service that many Minnesotans frowned upon (though incorrectly, IMHO). Passive Aggressive Retribution (PAR) was called for, so Minnesotans eschewed Walter Mondale to represent us in the Senate and instead put one of the worst senators ever in office, and boy, did we suffer.

Everyone who follows Minnesota politics can list individuals who have run for office in the past, and were bad sports about it, who are now seen as non viable candidates not because of their abilities, what they would offer as an elected official, or any of that, but rather, just on the basis of how they behaved during the election, or the kind of sour grapes they may have served up later. So, if you are a supporter of one of the candidates in yesterday’s convention, you might consider not tossing around sour grapes on behalf of the person you supported. If you do, we will get back at you. Mostly it will be stern looks, but there might be other consequences as well.

Second: One tweeter, during the twitter-spheric conversation that happened last night, decided to make a disparaging remark about a female candidate. The remark brought in that person’s marital status and likened the candidate’s marital history to her campaigning strategy, in a negative way.

Happily many people called him out on this as being inappropriate and sexist, but unhappily, in response to this, the individual said “no, it is not sexist, I could have said something similar about a man.”

That is correct … this particular tweeter could easily have said something disparaging about a man, and referred to the man’s marital status in so doing. But he didn’t, did he? The comment was actually sexist but in a way that is a little hard to understand for some, and I’d like to take this opportunity to say why.

This is one of those tricky situations. Technically, referring to a woman’s physical appearance, her marital status, something about her having to do with sex, or domestic activities of any kind, is not sexist because one could make any of these references regarding a man as well. But the thing is, as a society, we tend not do to that. We tend to make these references in relation to women, not men. Especially in Minnesota, for crying out loud, everyone should know better. Anyone tweeting about Minnesota Politics who makes disparaging remarks about a female politician, such that those disparaging remarks have to do with her personal or marital live, must never have heard of Coya Knutson, for crying out loud.

Even I know that, and I’m an outsider.